What is Oncofertility?

IVF_2Last week, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry (AACC) we heard an impressive presentation by Dr. Teresa Woodruff PhD on “Oncofertility.” Although the topic is a bit removed from laboratory testing, I thought it was still an important topic for this blog.

So what is oncofertility?  The term was coined by Dr. Woodruff to describe the merging of the fields of oncology and fertility. Its focus is to preserve the reproductive capabilities of women after undergoing treatment for cancer.

Every year 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer in the US. Most people associate cancer with old age, but 10% of those diagnosed are <45 years old. Due to more advanced and aggressive treatments, an increasing number of people are surviving cancer. Unfortunately, these cancer treatments can also cause infertility, sterility or early menopause. Men have the ability to freeze semen before undergoing treatment that may affect their fertility. But for women it is not that easy. They need to undergo ovarian stimulation to harvest mature eggs to be frozen for later use or for in vitro fertilization in which the embryo can be frozen for later use. Unfortunately, this process of ovarian stimulation may return only a handful of eggs and takes over a month which can delay life-saving treatment.

Now, there are also alternative experimental techniques that involve ovarian tissue banking.  In one method, a part or all of an ovary is removed and cryopreserved. Strips of ovarian tissue are then thawed and transplanted into the patient with the hope that immature follicles within the transplanted strips will begin to develop as they would in a normal ovary. To date, this has resulted in about 15 live births around the United States.

In her lecture, Dr. Woodruff also discussed in vitro follicle maturation. This technique is being investigated currently and involves taking ovarian tissue and, with the help of biomedical engineering, allowing the eggs to grow and mature outside of the body. This method is not yet available for patients, but is promising because it would not delay treatment for the patient and because potentially more eggs could be harvested.

The Oncofertility Consortium is a national group of interdisciplinary scientists, doctors and scholars that work to help women preserve their fertility. This is an important resource for women who plan to undergo treatment for cancer and want to preserve their reproductive capacity.

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